Michael Zavros is a leading Australian painter based in Brisbane who works in a photorealistic style. A virtuoso of material illusionism, he creates seductive still life tableaux that comment on collecting, value systems and art history.

The Phoenix combines painted floral arrangements that the artist designs, photographs and paints with decorative and design objects to create zoomorphic creatures against stark white backdrops. The Phoenix is suggestive of the symbolic bird rising in flight, but in Zavros's painting, its fanned wings are formed of palm leaves; its neck and beak a silver sporting trophy cup; its skeleton a gilded dessert stand; and its ruffled feathers replaced with explosive plumes of colourful flowers. These objects shift symbolically and Zavros's phoenix seems more like a soaring tropical bird.

Zavros created this painting for the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Magic Object exhibition. He responded to the Australian and European Decorative Arts and Design collections of the Art Gallery of South Australia. The two objects depicted are the 1870s Henry Steiner Adelaide Hunt Club Cup and the neoclassical dessert stand designed by John Flaxman and made by silversmith Paul Storr in Britain in 1812-13, the latter which is featured here in the display.

Michael Zavros, born Brisbane, Queensland 1974, The Phoenix, 2015, Brisbane, oil on canvas, 220.0 x 200.0 cm; James and Diana Ramsay Fund supported by Philip Bacon AM through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2016, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Courtesy the artist and Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, photo: Jon Linkins.

  • Why do you think Zavros has titled this work The Phoenix? What features remind you of a bird?
  • Imagine you are the phoenix in this painting; use your body to assume its shape and position.
  • Look carefully at Paul Storr and John Flaxman’s Dessert stand (1812–13) and Henry Steiner’s Adelaide Hunt Club Cup 1883 (1883), which feature in The Phoenix. Why do you think the artist has selected these objects to paint? Use the following key words to support your answer. still life, zoomorphic, positive and negative space, texture, surface, line, pattern, form, material, hyperrealism, balance and emphasis.
  • Zavros' work has been described as zoomorphic. Before researching this word further, break down the word into smaller parts and look closely at the word. What do you think this word might mean? Find a work by another artist that could be described as zoomorphic.

Paul Storr, silversmith, born London 1771, died London 1844, Attributed to John Flaxman, designer, born York 1755, died London 1826, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, retailer, Dessert stand, 1812-13, London, silver gilt, glass, 62.0 x 38.0 x 38.0 cm; Gift of Mr and Mrs J.H.Borthwick and family fund assisted by the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 1993, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

  • How has Zavros achieved balance in his work? Provide evidence for your opinion. You may also discuss space, contrast, emphasis, unity, movement, rhythm or pattern in your response.
  • Walk through the permanent collection of the Gallery. Select a still life painting that appeals to you. Use The Phoenix and your chosen work of art to debate the following claim: 'The tradition of still life painting has changed over time'.
  • Zavros’s work recalls the European tradition of still life painting, while also creating a zoomorphic quality. The blooms and the objects rendered in such magnificent detail have been assembled to resemble a creature that may magically awaken from the canvas and suddenly take flight. Using multiple images of plants and flowers, create a collage of a bird or magical creature.
  • Photograph an object that is important to you. Ensure your image is clear and sharp. Using the grid method, sketch up your object onto a canvas. Using fine brushstrokes and working in small sections, paint your own hyperreal image. Tip: Consider the balance of positive and negative space. You may wish to leave your background white to emphasise your object. Manipulate this photograph in Photoshop to create a zoomorphic image.